Monthly Archives: June 2011

Why the “Cost to the economy” of strike action could be misleading

It’s become a modern catchphrase. When planes are grounded, when cars crash, when computers are hacked, and when the earth shakes. There is, it seems, always a “cost to the economy”.

Today, with a mass strike over pensions in the UK, the cliche is brought forth again:

“The Treasury could save £30m from the pay forfeited by the striking teachers today but business leaders warned that this was hugely outbalanced by the wider cost to the economy of hundreds of thousands of parents having to take the day off.

“The British Chambers of Commerce said disruption will lead to many parents having to take the day off work to look after their children, losing them pay and hitting productivity.”

Statements like these (by David Frost, the director general, it turns out) pass unquestioned (also here, here and elsewhere), but in this case (and I wonder how many others), I think a little statistical literacy is needed.

Beyond the churnalism of ‘he said-she said’ reporting, when costs and figures are mentioned journalists should be asking to see the evidence.

Here’s the thing. In reality, most parents will have taken annual leave today to look after their children. That’s annual leave that they would have taken anyway, so is it really costing the economy any more to take that leave on this day in particular? And specifically, enough to “hugely outbalance” £30m?

Stretching credulity further is the reference to parents losing pay. All UK workers have a statutory right to 5.6 weeks of annual leave paid at their normal rate of pay. If they’ve used all that up halfway into the year (or 3 months into the financial year) – before the start of the school holidays no less – and have to take unpaid leave, then they’re stupid enough to be a cost to the economy without any extra help.

And this isn’t just a fuss about statistics: it’s a central element of one of the narratives around the strikes: that the Government are “deliberately trying to provoke the unions into industrial action so they could blame them for the failure of the Government’s economic strategy.”

If they do, it’ll be a good story. Will journalists let the facts get in the way of it?

UPDATE: An inverse – and equally dubious – claim could be made about the ‘boost’ to the economy from strike action: additional travel and food spending by those attending rallies, and childcare spending by parents who cannot take time off work. It’s like the royal wedding all over again… (thanks to Dan Thornton in the comments for starting this chain of thought)

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My online journalism book is now out

The Online Journalism Handbook, written with Liisa Rohumaa, has now been published. You can get it here.

I’ve been blogging throughout the process of writing the book – particularly the chapters on data journalism, blogging and UGC – and you can still find those blog posts under the tag ‘Online Journalism Book‘.

Other chapters cover interactivity, audio slideshows and podcasting, video, law, some of the history that helps in understanding online journalism, and writing for the web (including SEO and SMO).

Meanwhile, I’ve created a blog, Facebook page and Twitter account (@OJhandbook) to provide updates, corrections and additions to the book.

If you spot anything in the book that needs updating or correcting, let me know. Likewise, let me know what you think of the book and anything you’d like to see added in future.

What I learned from the Facebook Page experiment – and what happens next

Paul Bradshaw Facebook page

Cross-posted from the BBC College of Journalism blog:

Last week my experiment in running a blog entirely through a Facebook Page quietly came to the end of its allotted four weeks. It’s been a useful exercise, and I’m going to adapt the experiment slightly. Here’s what I’ve learned:

It suits emotive material

The most popular posts during that month were simple links that dealt with controversy – Isle of Wight council talking about withdrawing accreditation if a blogger refused to pre-moderate comments; and the wider issue of being denied access to public documents or meetings on the basis of blogging.

This isn’t a shock – research into Facebook tends to draw similar conclusions about the value of ‘social’ content.

That said, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions because the Insights data only gives numbers on posts after June 9 (when I posted a book chapter as a series of Notes), and the network effects will have changed as the page accumulated Likes.

UPDATE: Scrolling down the page each update does have impressions and interaction data on it in light grey – I’m not sure why these are not included in the Insights data (perhaps that service only kicks in after a certain number of Likes). But they do confirm that links get much higher traffic than Notes.

It requires more effort than most blogs

With most blogging it’s quite easy to ‘just do it’ and then figure out the bells and whistles later. With a Facebook Page I think a bit of preparation goes a long way – especially to avoid problems later on.

Firstly, there’s the choice whether to start one from scratch or convert an existing Facebook account into a Page.

Secondly, there’s the page name itself: at first you can edit this, but after 100 Likes you can’t. That leaves my ‘Paul Bradshaw’s Online Journalism Blog on FB for 1 month‘ looking a bit silly 5 weeks later. (It would be nice if Facebook warned you that this was happening)

Thirdly, if you want write more than 420 characters, you’ll need to use Notes (ideally, when logged on as the Page itself, which will result in the Note being auto-posted to the wall). And if you want to link phrases without leaving littering the note with ugly URLs, you’ll need to use HTML code.

Next, there’s integration with other online presences. Here are the apps I used:

  1. RSS Graffiti (for auto-posting RSS feeds from elsewhere)
  2. Slideshare (adds a new tab for your presentations on that site)
  3. Cueler YouTube (pulls new updates from your YouTube account)
  4. Tweets to Pages (pulls from your Twitter account into a new tab)

There’s also Smart Twitter for Pages which publishes page updates to Twitter; or you can use Facebook’s own Twitter page to link pages to Twitter.

Finally, I was thankful that I had used a Feedburner account for the Online Journalism Blog RSS feed. That allowed me to change the settings so that subscribers to the blog would still receive updates from the Facebook page (which also has an RSS feed) – and change it back afterwards.

It’s not suited for anything you might intend to find later

Although Vadim Lavrusik pointed out that you can find the Facebook page through Google or Facebook’s own search, individual posts are rather more difficult to track down.

The lack of tags and categories also make it difficult to retrieve updates and notes – and highlight the problems for search engine optimisation.

This created a curious tension: on the one hand, short term traffic to individual posts was probably higher than I would normally get on the blog outside Facebook. On the other, there was little opportunity for long term traffic: there was no footprint of inbound links for Google to follow.

This may not be a problem for local, hard news organisations which have a rapid turnover of content, no need to rank in Google News, and little value in the archives.

But there are too many drawbacks for most to move (as Rockville Central’s blog recently did) completely to Facebook. It simply leaves you too isolated, too ephemeral, and too vulnerable to changes in Facebook’s policies.

Part of a network strategy

So in short, while it’s great for short term traffic, it’s bad for traffic long-term. It’s better for ongoing work and linking than more finished articles. It shouldn’t be viewed in isolation from the rest of the web, but rather as one more prong in a distributed strategy: just as I tweet some things, Tumblelog others, and just share or bookmark others, Facebook Pages fit in somewhere amidst all of that.

Now I just need to keep on working out exactly how.

Why your mark doesn’t matter (and why it does)

It’s that time of year when students get their marks and with them, sometimes, disappointment, frustration or outright confusion. These emotions tend to arise, I think, because students and academics often have very different perceptions of what marks mean.

So here are four reasons why your mark does not matter in the way you think it does – as well as some pointers to making sure things are kept in perspective. Continue reading

Why your mark doesn’t matter (and why it does)

It’s that time of year when students get their marks and the usual protests are made. I say “usual” because these tend to follow a particular pattern – and I want to explore why that happens, because I think students and academics often have very different perceptions of what marks mean.

So here are four reasons why your mark does not matter in the way you think it does – as well as some pointers to making sure things are kept in perspective.

1. Marks are not a high score table

Marks measure a number of things, but primarily they (should) measure whether you can demonstrate that you have learned key principles covered in the course. They do not measure your ability. They are not a measure of you as a person. They measure a very specific thing in very specific ways.

This is often the hardest thing to explain to students – particularly those who are extremely talented, but have received bad marks. I might know you are first class; you know you are first class; but that has to be demonstrable and transparent in a piece of work and accompanying documentation not just to me but to a second marker, a moderator and an external examiner (in the UK at least).

This is particularly important when the skills being taught are not just craft skills but involve issues such as research, law, project management, and analysis.

These are skills that sometimes have to be explicitly demonstrated outside of the project they relate to in an evaluation or report. In the field of online journalism – where things are still in flux and part of your skill is being able to follow those changes – I think they are particularly important (They can also often generate objections on the grounds of being too ‘theoretical’, but the point is that these are not objects of abstract study but are intended make you a better practitioner.)

The key advice here is: read the brief, and make sure any documentation explicitly addresses the areas mentioned.

That said, don’t think that you can blag a pass mark through documentation alone – the project will give the lie to that.

2. Effort does not equal success

You can spend twice as much time as somebody else on a project, and still get lower marks. Some people are naturally good at things, and for others it takes a long time. Life’s a bitch.

But also, often, it’s about a lack of focus and planning: spending 20 hours writing blog posts is not going to be as successful as if you spent half of that time reading other blog posts to get a feel for the medium; researching your subject matter; and re-writing what you have written to make it better.

Put another way: it’s better to do something wrong once, then review it and do it better second time, than do it wrong 10 times without reflection.

3. Success does not mean a good mark

If your article is published in a magazine or newspaper, that’s good – but it doesn’t mean that it’s of professional quality. Some editors have low standards – especially if they aren’t paying and need to fill space at short notice.

Likewise, your blog post may have accumulated 3,000 hits – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it meets the requirements of the brief.

To reiterate point 1: marks measure something very specific. They do not measure you as a person, or even the project as a whole. That’s not to undermine your achievements in getting so many hits or selling an article – those are things you should be rightly proud of (and mention at every interview).

4. Marks don’t matter

I exaggerate, of course. But you shouldn’t take marks too seriously. If you only wanted to pass a module and move on, then move on – it’s quite likely your lack of investment in the subject that was the reason for low marks. If you want a good mark because you want a good degree classification, then you should be using your time effectively and reading feedback from previous assignments – but also be aware of the way that degrees are classified (it’s often more complex than you might assume).

But if you want to be better in the areas that were being measured, then read the feedback – and ask for more if you need to (academics have learned that lengthy written feedback doesn’t tend to be read by students and so keep it short, but are generally happy to talk to you in depth if you want to).

Sometimes the feedback will sound much better than the mark indicates. This quite often comes down to language and style: being ‘sound’ might seem good to you, but in the language of the assessment bands it typically means average or, more often, below average; ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ are equivalents for higher categories. Negative feedback is often sandwiched between positive feedback.

Don’t underestimate how hard it is to get a high mark at undergraduate – and especially postgraduate – level. You may be used to high grades, but the bar is raised at each level. Anything above 60% (in the UK) is actually very good. The average is generally around 58% – anything higher or lower will require explanation for external examiners (who check that marking is consistent across institutions).

To get a first class mark typically means you have to perform at the top level in every category being assessed. That’s in italics for a reason: you might be the greatest writer the world has ever known, but your research isn’t first rate. You might have spent hours scouring official documents for an international scoop (yes, I’m exaggerating again) but your understanding of the legal ramifications was flawed. And so on.

But here’s the thing: given the choice between a great mark and a great story, I think you should go for the latter.

Caveats: this is assuming that your objective is to get a job in journalism, and you are confident of passing. Also, always have a backup plan if the story falls through.

The marks are only a signpost along your journey through education. If you write a blinding blog post, be proud of it regardless of where it ranks against the criteria it was being formally assessed on.

Marks, and the accompanying feedback, are there to focus your attention on blind spots and weak spots in your work. Use them in that way – but don’t use them to rate yourself or to compare yourself with others. Once you start playing a game of high score rankings, you’ve already lost.

Hyperlocal Voices: South Norwich News

South Norwich News

It’s been a while – here’s a new Hyperlocal Voices interview, with South Norwich News, an 18 month-old site set up by former BBC journalist Claire Wood and her husband Tom when she “wanted to test the hypothesis that people’s interest in local news actually only spans a relatively small area.” In the process they discovered the power of social networks and how to avoid the deadline-induced reliance on press releases.

Who were the people behind the blog?

South Norwich News was set up by myself and my husband, Tom Wood, who runs a design agency who specialise in advising online clients on how to make their websites more user-friendly. Using his knowledge, we drew up the information architecture for the site and then found a web developer who could put our ideas into place.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

We came across the idea of hyperlocal news sites being set up and growing in popularity in the States. As a former BBC journalist, I wanted to test the hypothesis that people’s interest in local news actually only spans a relatively small area and that their interest wanes when the stories come from further afield.

In a way I wanted to reclaim the idea of “local news” to mean news that actually matters to you because it’s happening near to where you live. I want to make the news relevant for readers.

I also wanted a way to return to the patch reporting I did in my early days with the BBC, step away from “churnalism” and start setting my own news agenda, dependant on what I believed local people were interested in.

When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

We launched in January 2010. In the previous 6 months I started building up contacts, exploring what sort of stories might be of interest to people who live in the area and building the website.

Our site is built on WordPress with some customised changes.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

We looked the USA at sites. There were two or three being set up in New York for example, sometimes funded as an experiment by traditional news titles.

How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

We’re very much in the news business but on a very small scale. We wanted to get away from deadlines and pressures that cause papers and news bulletins to churn out the same press releases across the day.

Some big stories we can’t avoid covering along with the local paper or radio station, but we always try to find a different angle. There’s little point covering the same stories that people can find elsewhere.

As we become more established, it becomes easier to set our own agenda. We aim to delve a little deeper into stories which matter to people locally which other news outlets might not be able to do in such detail..

What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

Google Analytics gives us a really good insight into which stories interest people the most. We were often surprised by the stories which gained the most traffic. People like hearing about things that are new to the area and also like detailed information on events such as the parade route for Norwich City Football Club’s successful promotion-winning team. We’ve adapted the sort of stories we cover in response to Google analytics research.

After about 6 months, we launched a new Features section, for stories which aren’t strictly “news” but are still of interest to our readers. This allows us to run advertorial features in this section too, which is one of our revenue streams.

What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

Last month we had close to 6,000 unique visitors, with 18,000 page views. This has grown month on month since setting up.

I wouldn’t call it a blog. It’s based on WordPress and takes the form of a “blog” but we offer an online news service on a very local level.

Anecdotally, our readers like the service we provide. I think Twitter and Facebook have had a huge impact on our ability to spread our stories to a wider audience, without which we might have floundered.